Thursday, February 14, 2019

DCNR Touts Restore PA Bond Proposal As The Only Plan That Can Truly Address State’s Infrastructure Needs

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn said in written testimony and in comments before the House Appropriations Committee Thursday Gov. Wolf’s $4.5 billion Restore Pennsylvania infrastructure plan is important to meeting the needs for recreation and land conservation project funding across the state.
“While separate and apart from the budget, we also look forward to Governor Wolf’s Restore Pennsylvania infrastructure plan, which will provide significant funding to enable environmental projects and new recreational opportunities across the state.
“Restore Pennsylvania will include infrastructure and maintenance projects in state parks and forests, creation and revitalization of new local parks, and funding for hiking, biking, and ATV trail projects.
“Restore Pennsylvania is the only plan that can truly address the Commonwealth’s infrastructure needs, including key environmental priorities.”
She also addressed concerns raised by several members of the Committee about Gov. Wolf’s proposed transfer of monies from the Keystone Recreation, Parks and Conservation and Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) funds to pay for agency operating expense.
Dunn noted funds from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund have been used to pay for operating costs of the agency for several years and the proposed transfers would allow for a complete operating budget for DCNR.
At the same time, she said DCNR is committed to having the same level of effort to support projects funded through the Keystone and Environmental Stewardship funds they have had in the past.
Here is a quick summary of some of the key issues raised at the hearing--
-- Use Of Special Funds For Operating Costs: Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) asked what has changed the Administration’s mind on using special funds this year for administrative costs when 2 years ago the Administration was strongly opposed to the idea. Dunn said it is a common thing to have the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to pay for operating costs of the agency and the proposed transfer from the Keystone Recreation, Parks and Conservation Fund to pay operating costs will allow DCNR to have a complete budget.  DCNR, she said, is committed to having the same level of effort to support projects funded by the Keystone Fund. Dunn also said the Keystone Fund revenue came in from the Real Estate Tax “very healthy” this year.
Rep. Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery), Minority Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said members of his Caucus have concerns about the use of special fund monies to pay agency operating costs at DEP and DCNR.  He said he is specifically concerned about the sustainability of these transfers. He also noted the Restore Pennsylvania Initiative could fill gaps in DCNR’s project funding.  Dunn said she supported what he said about Restore Pennsylvania filling gaps.  She, as an example, noted 32 of the dams DCNR owns are high hazard dams which would be included in the Restore Pennsylvania Initiative.
Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York), Majority Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, asked about how DCNR is dealing with it high hazard dam issue.  Dunn said they identify a dam or two a year as they can with the resources to deal with them. She noted the number of projects they have to do is way beyond the capacity of the Keystone Fund and Environmental Stewardship Fund to support.
Rep. Rosemary Brown (R-Monroe) asked whether using a 100 year floodplain is a reasonable regulation to follow in judging how hazardous a dam is and the damage it could cause if it fails, adding she was concerned about compliance costs.  Dunn said DEP handles the regulation of dam safety and DCNR follows those regulations. She added standards like that need to be looked at in terms of whether they are adequate in light of climate change increasing the frequency of storms.
Rep. Christopher Quinn (R-Delaware) also expressed concerns about the transfer of money coming out of the Keystone and Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) funds and asked if DCNR has enough money to compete local projects.  Dunn said the demand for projects is very high and a proposal like Restore Pennsylvania Initiative would help with recreation and flooding projects.
Rep. Leanne Krueger (D-Delaware) said there is one positive in the proposed budget-- shifting the debt service for the Growing Greener 2 bond issue from the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund to the General Fund, but she also expressed concerns about the transfers paying for operating costs.  Dunn said they work with communities who want funding support, but DCNR has only been able to fund 50 to 60 percent of the project applications each year. That’s where the Restore Pennsylvania Initiative would be helpful.
Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon) expressed a concern about the money transfers and the possibility of replacing that funding with bond funding through the Restore Pennsylvania Initiative.  Dunn said the scale of the infrastructure needs in the recreation network is huge.  Without the forest products industry generating major economic activity for the state, she said Agriculture would not be the number one industry in the state.  And tourism would not be what it is now in Pennsylvania without our recreational infrastructure
Rep. Heffley said an entrance fee to parks could be a source of revenue for DCNR.
Rep. James Struzzi (R-Indiana) said constituents are emailing and calling his office expressing concern about funding for their community projects. Relying on parks and recreation facilities for tourism is the only thing some areas have.  Dunn said, again, funding will be provided at the historic levels, but at the same time there is a bigger need for funding for these kinds of projects that the Restore Pennsylvania Initiative.
-- Oil & Gas Lease Fund: Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware), Minority Chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, expressed concerns about taking $20 million more from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to pay DCNR operating expenses in the face of the June 2017 PA Supreme Court decision in a case brought by the Environmental Defense Foundation saying it was unconstitutional to use monies from the Fund for non-conservation purposes.  Dunn said the decision established a firm principal of holding these resources as a trustee for public resources and that’s good, but it’s a legal question that’s for the courts to sort out.
Rep. Keith Greiner (R-Lancaster) asked how much revenue gas drilling brings to DCNR.  Dunn this year it will be about $81 million from oil and gas royalties and rents. DCNR Deputy Secretary for State Parks and Forestry John Norbeck noted only about 30-35 percent of those lands already leased for drilling have been developed.  He added there will only be about 3 gas drilling rigs working on State Forest land this year.
Rep. Greiner followed up by asking how is DCNR sure it is getting what it deserves.    Nortbeck said there is an upfront and back end audits of leases and production that has so far recovered $3.1 million in funds due to DCNR.
Rep. Fritz (R-Wayne) said there are a number of partnership like the one with Seneca Resources in the Elk State Forest planting trees and making other improvements and asked what other partnerships DCNR has with drilling companies.  Dunn said there are several types of partnerships with oil and gas drilling lease holders and that DCNR has challenged them to do more to do local conservation projects.  She said Seneca has been working on public lands for a long time and DCNR has a good relationship with them.
-- Infrastructure Needs: Rep. Stephen McCarter (D-Montgomery) shares the concern about the long term impact of the transfer of special fund monies to pay for operating costs.  He asked specifically about what the need is for infrastructure replacement and repairs in State Parks and State Forests and whether DCNR could fund local floodplain buyouts for homeowner who want to relocate.  Dunn said DCNR has major infrastructure needs and the Restore Pennsylvania Initiative would help with that.  She noted they are not prevented from matching local funds for floodplain buyouts involving recreational projects.
Rep. Patty Kim (D-Dauphin) asked for more specific information on infrastructure needs in State Parks.  Dunn and DCNR Deputy Secretary for State Parks and Forestry John Norbeck noted DCNR has about $4 billion in infrastructure and much of that is over 50 years old.  The coming year about $15 million in Capital Budget funding, $30 Keystone Recreation, Parks and Conservation Fund and $15 million out of Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund  will be used for DCNR infrastructure projects. Dunn said infrastructure funding by a bond issue like through the Restore Pennsylvania Initiative would make sense to address these needs.
Rep. Lynda Culver (R-Northumberland) also asked for more on infrastructure needs and amounts and how projects are prioritized.  Dunn said there is a backlog of infrastructure projects of about $1 billion in DCNR. These are projects Restore Pennsylvania Initiative could address.  Public safety projects are priorities for funding and dealing with immediate issues like flood and other damage to facilities.  In response to a follow-up question, Dunn said she will provide a list of infrastructure projects in State Parks and Forests.
Rep. Lee James (R-Venango) asked how DCNR justifies buying more land when there are so many infrastructure needs. He said he was concerned about competing with private industry.  Dunn said land conservation has been a big part of DCNR’s mission for quite a while using monies from the Environmental Stewardship and Keystone funds. She noted improvements on State Parks and Forests lands are completed by local contractors and the tourism these facilities generate support local businesses. These lands are typically not lands eyed for any industrial uses.
Rep. James Struzzi (R-Indiana) asked about steps DCNR takes in marketing State Parks and Forests recreation opportunities.  Dunn said they rely on the Department of Community and Economic Development’s major tourist marketing program, but use social media and other outlets to promote recreation opportunities all year round.
-- Climate Change:  Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D-Philadelphia) asked what steps DCNR is taking to deal with climate change impacts.  Dunn said DCNR has identified 124 individual actions it is taking to address climate change issues.  She said DCNR has a variety of other sustainable practices they have adopted, including developing modern green buildings, installing electric vehicle charging stations and more.  Gov. Wolf’s Executive Order on reducing greenhouse gas emissions set goals for reductions that all agencies are committed to implement.
Rep. Fiedler also asked how DCNR it is dealing with increased flooding caused by climate change. Dunn said they are installing forest buffers and green infrastructure to address many of these problems on its lands as they have resources to do them.  DCNR is also looking at how local recreation projects can incorporate features to address stormwater and flooding issues. She said the Restore Pennsylvania Initiative can help support many of these kinds of projects.
Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon) asked if DCNR is following the Game Commission in putting a moratorium on wind energy projects. He said there is a lot of local concern in his area about the impact these projects could have.  Dunn said DCNR’s legislation does not authorize wind energy projects on its lands. She said public lands offer natural vistas for the public to enjoy and wind energy projects may get in the way of that enjoyment. She said DCNR supports renewable energy by doing projects like solar energy in the built environment of its parks.
-- Purchase Of New State Lands: Rep. Matt Gabler (R-Clearfield) asked how DCNR makes its decisions about purchasing additional lands. He noted some local governments in his area have half or more of their land area in public ownership.  He also expressed concern about how the agency was calculating its in-lieu of tax payments for state forest and park lands. Dunn said there are regional difference in the appetite for land conservation and they take their cues on purchases from county commissioners.  She said she would get back to him on the in-lieu of tax issue.
-- Lyme Timber Sale: Rep. John Lawrence (R-Chester) asked about the status of the $50 million PennVEST loan to Lyme Timber to purchase 60,103 acres of privately owned timber land for its water quality and forest management benefits while still allowing sustainable timbering and some public access.  He specifically asked about the public access provisions of the loan and related easements. DCNR Deputy Secretary for State Parks and Forestry John Norbeck said the public access plan is available to the public and they would share it with him.  In response to a follow-up question, Dunn said they are satisfied with the public access provisions in the agreement. Dunn clarified the specific agreements involved in this case are for a working forest easement, it is not in DCNR or state ownership, it remains in private hands.
-- Invasive Species: Rep. Marcia Hahn (R-Northampton) asked about any increased threats from invasive species that would affect DCNR’s budget this year.  Dunn said DCNR is working with the Department of Agriculture and the forest industry to address problems like spotted lanternfly, woolly adelgid, emerald ash borer.   She said it seems like it’s a constant battle with climate change and the weather.  She said one brighter spot is gypsy moths where the wet weather last year knocked down the populations somewhat, at least for this year/
-- Lyme Disease: Rep. Rosemary Brown (R-Monroe) asked what DCNR is doing on educating the public about lyme disease given its high incidence in Pennsylvania.  Dunn said DCNR views lyme disease as a threat to workers and to the people recreating in the outdoors and undertakes a major effort to educate the public on how to prevent Lyme Disease.
Click Here for a copy of Secretary Dunn’s written testimony.  Click Here for House hearing videos (bottom of page).  Click Here for written testimony.
The Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on DCNR’s budget is scheduled for March 4 at 3:00.  Click Here to watch the Senate hearing online and for hearing summaries.
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